Obama Can Reboot the Federal Government

Pilobolus enacts social mediaBarack Obama apparently resents it when he’s accused of being vague about the policies he’ll pursue as president, seeing such questions as a political trap.  He’s not unjustified in this fear, but since he doesn’t have a record of doing anything in particular in the public sphere — if he had a signature issue, it was ethics and campaign reform, and he just jettisoned that with his decision to raise unlimited private funds in his general election bid — he does have to be more specific than another candidate with a record and a reputation might have needed to be.

I think the promise of Obama is that he will bring to the US government of the new opportunities for collaboration and network formation that creative people have developed in the past five years, using the Internet’s capabilities as their primary tool.  Social media is why my son’s life is going to be very different from mine.

Social media could also be why Obama’s presidency could be very different from any of his predecessors.  Who knows, maybe the state of the art is such that McCain would also embrace these techniques, but if you had to pick between them as to who would usher in that future first, it wouldn’t be a contest. It’s Obama.

There’s a tension, however, between the futuristic orientation of Obama’s young supporters and the essential stodginess of the Democratic Party — a condition Obama’s acolytes haven’t really experienced yet.  The Democratic Party gives life to, and is the death of, idealism in youth.  The situation was nicely captured in today’s Sunday New York Times Magazine, in a short piece by NYU sociology professor Dalton Conley.  Here are some of the key grafs:

The chatter these days is that the Republicans are a party that has run out of ideas. The Soviet Union is long gone; welfare has been reformed; market logics have permeated almost every aspect of our lives (eBay, anyone?). The truth is that the triumph of conservative ideas may present a political problem for the ailing Republicans, but the party that’s truly lacking in new ideas is my own, the resurgent Democrats.

There is lots of talk in progressive policy circles that we need a “New New Deal” or some other sort of postindustrial revision to the social contract. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, after all, were forged in a society in which, for the most part, social organization was concentric. By way of analogy, think of Russian nesting dolls: children were nested in families; each family had one breadwinner; that breadwinner worked for a single employer; those employers were firmly rooted in the United States; and, to top it all off, the vast majority of people living in the country were citizens. This form of social organization made the social contract possible. There were clear parties to cut the deal, so to speak.


Today, by contrast, the most common model of social organization is crosscutting social groups.


These more complex social arrangements create many problems for the old social contract.


So perhaps we need to reimagine these nesting dolls and instead think of the social contract along the lines of a computer network or the hub-and-spoke airline network in the U.S. In such “scale free” networks, distance has been collapsed by long links that allow you to skip between any two points in a couple steps. The government’s role is less as a backup provider — in case one link of the nested chain breaks down — and more as honest broker and resource hub across groups.

In health care, for example, the government could act as a pooler, forming health-insurance-purchasing cooperatives, randomly assigning unaffiliated individuals to groups that would then contract with private insurers. Likewise, the state could set up universal investment accounts for retirement savings, college savings and health expenditures. In education, the feds could mandate that any institutions of higher education that receive government dollars must make their research and course materials available online in an open-source format free of charge.

Private companies and nonprofits are already stepping in to fill this role. The Freelancers Union allows self-employed individuals to purchase health insurance at less expensive group rates. And M.I.T. and iTunes U have already inaugurated the open-courseware movement. But government has an important role to play. After all, the state can absorb a lot more risk than smaller entities can. Think how well government-backed V.A. and F.H.A. mortgages worked after World War II as compared with how the private market has fared lately.

(snip)It’s not surprising that the private-sector, new-economy companies are ahead of government in adapting to the networked society, but if progressives want a victory in the world of ideas and policy — and not just a couple of good election cycles — they are going to have to stop talking F.D.R, J.F.K. and L.B.J. and start thinking eBay, Google and Wiki.

Social network diagramOn my other blog, From 50,000 Feet, I wrote about Obama as viewed similarly in a Wired story.

These aren’t the ideas that will get Obama elected, surely.  He already gets mocked as the “egghead” in the race.  He’s compared in an uncomplimentary fashion to such famous Democratic intellectuals as Adlai Stevenson and Michael Dukakis.

But someday, somehow, one of our presidents is going to rescue the federal government from its sclerotic ways and figure out how to treat us like valued customers.  I think it will have to be a Democrat, because only a Democrat will be trusted to reconfigure social safety-net programs, and only a Democrat can butt heads with the public-employee unions that exist to kill efficiency reforms and expert to emerge with anything to show for it.

Obama can grow in the areas where he is now weak.  McCain is what he is. He’s the Pope Benedict XVI of this election, the safe, stall-for-time choice for president who will hold the office honorably while both parties figure out what their new directions will be.  Obama might not be ready (see my last post), but modernizing the colossus that is the US government is a task no one will ever be ready for.  You have to start somewhere, and Obama brings more of the kinds of tools we’ll need than anyone else with a credible chance to become president in 2012.


2 thoughts on “Obama Can Reboot the Federal Government

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